Saturday, August 30, 2008

Telluride - Day 1

Telluride is probably the most audience friendly film festival I've ever been to. Once you get past the exhorbirant costs associated with the attendance.

Take the opening night for example. No grand speeches, red carpets or swarms of paparazzi to spoil the mood. Instead, the whole main street was blocked to traffic and tables were lined up with plentiful of food and alcohol. You could even bump into Laura Linney or Mike Leigh while waiting to fill up your plate with salad.

The general aura of excitement was in the air and everyone seemed anxious to get started on the films. My first strike - to see Slavoi Zizek's 'Perverts Guide to Cinema' - proved unsuccessful as the tiny, make-shift cinema in the town library (seating only 50 people) was already packed.

Screenings proper started at around 6pm and the first film we were "almost" guaranteed an entry into was Sergei Dvortsevoy's 'Tulpan' - a remarkable film set in a remote Kazakh steppe.
While I'm not a huge fan of 'anthropological' films (that is films that are anxious to present on screen the lives and traditions of different, usually remote cultures) - Tulpan proved to be an exceptional achievement. The film focuses on a young ex-marine, Asa, who has returned to live with his sister's family in the steppes, where he helps he brother in law to heard sheep. Asa is determined to set up his own farm, but in order to do so, he has to get married, otherwise the 'Big Boss' will not allocate him a herd. The problem is that the only eligible girl around has absolutely no desire to marry him, claiming that Asa has big ears (but who actually simply wants to escape the steppe in order to study at a college).
From this simple premise, Dvortsevoy builds a magnificent tapestry that is so rich with delicate observations and unaffected emotions that it could almost be a documentary. The director's previous documentary works had paved the way for his contemplative style, with long, languid takes, anxious pauses, unexpected and sudden incursions of various elements into the frame. It's almost as if Dvortsevoy's camera is floating around, waiting for something to happen, to afraid to cut in case it misses something vital. And in the harsh landscape of the Kazakh steppe, every element gains a monumental importance - like a small tornado ominously circling the hut, a dead lamb lying in the dust, or the startling incursion of a Bonny M song in the windy landscape.
It's all perfectly calibrated and timed, even if Dvortsevoy occasionally indulges in an over-long pause, overstatement or not too subtle metaphor.
The director gave a humble but insightful interview after the film. Like Zvyagnitsev's and Ilya Khrjanovsky's astounding debuts, 'Tulpan' proves that the post-Soviet cinematic landscape can attain the same great peaks reached by Tarkovsky and Paradjanov even in a decidedly neo-capitalist environment. Must be something in the water I guess...

Right after, we managed to sneak into the tiny 'Nugget' cinema, which seats only 185 people to take a look at Ole Christian Madsen's 'Flame and Citron'. This is apparently the biggest budget film ever made in Denmark. I was more shocked to find out that the budget was only $9 million.

Based on the real-life events, the film tells the story of two Danish resistance fighters during WW2. Flame and Citron are a strong team that commit various assassinations on the orders of a man named Winther - a go between the British and the Resistance.
It doesn't take long for Flame to question some of these orders though as it becomes increasingly less apparent who the enemy is. Everyone seems to be leading double lives, including the alluring femme-fatale, Ketty with whom Flame becomes infatuated with.
'Flame and Citron' certainly has a very gripping story at its core, full of suspense and moral dilemmas, but somehow it never quite ac hives full flight. The film seems too weighed down by its own importance and it's not quite sure what it wants to be - an espionage thriller, a war movie or a moralistic diatribe. It wants to be all, but the parts never really mesh together.
Paul Verhoeven's very similar 'The Black Book' at least had the courage to be unashamedly entertaining and thus strikingly subversive. Madesen should have made more use of his Dogme beginnings to infuse more bite and cynicism in his story, instead he often goes for the obvious.
Still, the film has its moments of true suspense and heart-breaking tragedy and its excellent cast, in particular the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen and the revelatory Stine Stengade, make the [long] journey worthwhile.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Race to Telluride: The Film Festival That Didn't Want to be Seen

It's been almost... nearly... practically... well... over a year now since I last made a post here.

Well you know the saying - in [cyber]space no one can hear you scream!

So I guess there have been no disappointed fans craving for me to take up the keyboard again. And why should one write for a readership? I realized that the blog is ultimately just a personal diary that I was too lazy to keep and the knowledge that someone, somewhere might [accidentally] access it, only makes it slightly more titillating.

But back to the main reason for my "comeback" - Telluride Film Festival.

Where do I start?

A couple of months ago a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen for months called me out of blue and asked me if I wanted to take trip to US to attend the notoriously high-brow TFF. "They've got Zizek as the guest director", he said breathlessly. "Wow! Amazing! I would so love to hear him" I replied (last time I've tried to read Zizek I took three coffee breaks by the time I'd reached the second page). Of course David had no idea that I'd already decided to quit my job and take another extended working holiday in Europe and Armenia. The major festival I wanted to attend was Venice of course, but... Telluride is so off the beaten track that I'd probably never even think of going unless something like this happened. So I said yes.

Flash forward two months and a few unexpected twists and turns, and I found myself packing for the trip, even though I had tried to quit, change the ticket to Toronto and grew desperate at the huge cost that was looming ahead.

Even though we decided to go to Telluride nearly three months before it started, we found out that it was still quite late for getting things organised.

We barely managed to buy a 'Cinephile' pass for $350 - which had a suspiciously vague description, then accommodation (affordable accommodation) proved to be an impossible dream. Telluride doesn't even hostels. Everything was booked for the season. Fortunately I was able to find a nice girl by the name of Rebecca who was willing to share her room with us for $500 apiece.
That settled, another problem presented itself. How the hell do we get there?
Dave suggested we drive from Albuquerque to the town, but I was against the idea, so... from LA, I took a plane to Phoenix, then Albuquerque, then hang around the flat expanses of this non-descript town until 1.50 am, met Dave (who had come ahead of me) and then took a bus to Durango. At 9.30 am the shuttle bus from Telluride picked us up (for a cool $60) and drove up very slowly up the mountain passes, stopping at the Durango airport to pick up more passengers.
We got there after three hours, checked into our hotel and started exploring the town. The landscape is of course stunning, with high mountain chains circling the few tiny streets of the old town. The locals seem to have struck a perfect balance with nature, they know how to enjoy its delights while respecting its mighty power and purity.
All in all, it's quite an awe-inspiring sight, but I soon found out that the rapid changes in temperature, lack of sleep and the blasted air-conditioning in the mini-bus had made me lethargic and on the verge getting sick.
David seemed to be fine and was already making plans for a two-hour hike up the mountains, but my poor, office-bound body was refusing to go anywhere but the bed.
The added pressure not to snore at night (so as not to wake up my two companions) made for a truly torturous night.
Next day, I found myself enjoying the space more and really getting into the festival mood. The program was out so it was time to plan which films were going to be on the menu for the next four days...